Canada is home to nearly 4,000 species of native plants. The untrained eye may only see trees, grasses, weeds, and shrubs, but in First Nations teachings, many of these plants are medicine.
Nature has been a source of medicine for centuries. In some countries, an estimated 80 percent of people use traditional medicine to treat illness. For First Nations people in Canada, practising their traditions includes preserving indigenous medicinal plants.
History of indigenous plants
For thousands of years, plants have played a significant role in the lives of First Nations people. Trees were carved into canoes, flowers became natural dyes for clothing, and plants of all types were gathered for medicine.
One study counted nearly 550 plants with medicinal properties that were used by First Nations in the Canadian boreal forest. These plants treated nearly 30 different ailments, including fevers, colds, and diabetes.
“The foods we eat are medicine and healing,” says Coast Salish plant educator Cease Wyss. Her traditional name is T’uy’tanat, which translates to “medicine woman” in the Skwxwú7mesh (Squamish) language. Wyss has been teaching people about traditional uses of plants for more than 25 years. “[I] helping people to become educated, to be stewards of the land,” she explains.
A spiritual connection
First Nations medicine is closely tied to a respect for the natural world. “Every time I pick [plants] I take a moment with them; I talk to the plant, I hold it,” Wyss says. In her culture, plants are considered the second oldest living beings on the planet, so Wyss appropriately calls them grandmothers.
Vanishing knowledge in modern day
Indigenous plant wisdom has been carefully discovered over thousands of years and passed down from one generation to the next through oral tradition. In today’s world, people are relying less on these teachings to survive. As First Nations elders pass away from old age, so do these teachings.
“My philosophy is that if I don’t teach people about the indigenous species that exist, they’re going to disappear,” Wyss fears.
Medicines at risk
Some indigenous plants have had their habitats taken away by infrastructure, industry, and invasive species. There are nearly 500 invasive plant species in Canada, many of which were brought over from Europe in the 19th century. These invasive plants often outcompete native plants used by First Nations.
Preserving plant wisdom
One way to preserve plant wisdom is to use traditional knowledge to gather and use medicinal plants. Wyss believes anybody can implement her traditional teachings, as long as they have the right motive. “It’s not so much about who’s gathering; it’s about how people are gathering and what their intentions are,” she says.
Follow foraging rules
Every major jurisdiction has its own rules about foraging on public lands, so before gathering, contact your local government to find out its regulations. It is also important to ensure that the plants have not been treated with any sprays or pesticides.
As urban gardening and wild foraging rises in popularity, so does the overpicking of indigenous medicinal plants.
“The really true approach to indigenous gathering is that we only take what we need for ourselves and our families,” Wyss explains. If she sees a plant not very abundant in an area, she doesn’t pick from it at all. “I’ll photograph it because I want to keep it in some way.”
Consider invasive species
Instead of harvesting from indigenous plants, Wyss suggests foraging invasive plants such as the Himalayan blackberry, whose berries are just as delicious as the native trailing blackberry plant.
Make your own muscle strengthener tea
Wyss says the leaves of raspberries, blackberries, salmon berries, and thimbleberries are traditionally used to make a muscle strengthener tea for women.
- Gather two or three leaves from a plant you have permission to harvest from.
- Steep in 1 cup (250 mL) boiling water.
- Let sit for 10 minutes.
Remember to consult your health care practitioner before trying any of these plants.
Become a steward to First Nations culture
Indigenous knowledge is widespread and varied from region to region. You can help preserve their teachings by connecting with your local First Nations community, a nearby Aboriginal Friendship Centre, or the Aboriginal Tourism Association of Canada (aboriginalcanada.ca/en).
“Go to pow-wows, go to any of the gatherings, support local and indigenous economies as often as you can,” Wyss advocates. “You start with one thing and it ripples out.”
Widespread and unique
There are more than 600 recognized First Nations governments in Canada, each with its own uses for the plants growing on its traditional territory. This article is not intended to represent all Aboriginal groups, but rather bring awareness to some uses of indigenous medicinal plants.
Traditional indigenous medicinal plants
The sacred medicines
Tobacco, sage, cedar, and sweetgrass are some of the fundamental and most important traditional medicines of First Nations people. These plants are often used in ceremony for healing, blessings, and gift giving. Consult a local elder to find out what each plant means to your local First Nations.
Saskatoon berries, blueberries, soapberries, and raspberries are a few of an estimated 30 berry plants eaten by First Nations people.
Rosehips and wild roses
Wyss says some First Nations traditions believe bathing in rose petals will protect their spirit and heart after losing a loved one. “It’s a loving plant, and it’s supportive and cares for us in so many ways.”
Dandelion roots and leaves were eaten by First Nations people to support liver bile production, and the milky sap was used as a mosquito repellent.
This plant is considered one of the oldest plants on the planet. The plant was prepared in a tea to treat kidney and urinary tract problems.
Young shoots were eaten in early spring, whereas iron-packed leaves were cooked in hot water to make soup or tea. It may also have anti-inflammatory properties to aid arthritic pain.
Many of these plants can be found at health food stores. Consult your health care practitioner before trying any new supplement or medicinal plant.